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Gears of War (Xbox 360) artwork

Gears of War (Xbox 360) review

"Upon its explosive debut on Microsoft's next-gen console, Gears of War was almost universally lauded as a classic of its genre, the "killer app" for the 360. Its lineage is certainly impressive, with Epic having previously done the immortal FPS Unreal Tournament -- which still remains just as stunning and addictive almost a decade after its release -- before tackling the tactical shooter with Gears. Visually it's a masterpiece, an impossibly beautiful piece of technical wiza..."

Upon its explosive debut on Microsoft's next-gen console, Gears of War was almost universally lauded as a classic of its genre, the "killer app" for the 360. Its lineage is certainly impressive, with Epic having previously done the immortal FPS Unreal Tournament -- which still remains just as stunning and addictive almost a decade after its release -- before tackling the tactical shooter with Gears. Visually it's a masterpiece, an impossibly beautiful piece of technical wizardry. The post-apocalyptic utopian atmosphere is so completely realized here, and what's more, the hideous Locust army is host to all kinds of revolting yet believably organic and fearsome mutant horrors for the goofy looking human COG forces to grapple with. Some of the visuals within are positively spine-tingling, no doubt the best ever seen on a console. Hooking up a Dolby 5.1 setup to the 360 is simple and highlights the mostly excellent sound design. Seeing everything in motion is enough to convince people that yes, indeed, this is the future of gaming.

Yet, six months after the love affair started, I'm officially sick of this fucking game. My experience with Gears of War was exactly like my last relationship, now that I think about it. Good looks only go so far. I even used the term "orgasmic" to describe it. Never again.

The story is terrible, for starters. Perhaps that's a "given" when its purpose is simply to move you from skirmish to skirmish, doling out resistance much like the process of spoon-feeding an infant. We have Marcus Fenix, a perpetually sneering ex-con drafted to fight for his homeland of Sera, which has been overrun by subterranean horrors known as the Locust Horde. Some are humanoid, such as the grunts Marcus must fight off with his buddy Dom Santiago. Every single line of "tough guy" dialogue that spews from his mouth is painful to listen to. He comes across as more constipated than badass, as if he permanently has a police baton shoved up his rectum. Dom is less of a chatterbox, to the point where his character becomes nonexistent. At least they have the decency to shut up during combat. For the most part.

As the environs are typically run-down Italian looking architecture, there are many areas to take cover from Locust sharpshooters. This is the first (and really, the only) hurdle you must overcome when you start out: if you don't hide and take a methodical approach to each encounter, you will be flattened or otherwise turned into Swiss cheese. Hiding is as simple as hitting a button. Once safe under cover, you can adjust the camera to check on the opposition. It's a huge advantage having a third-person perspective and not having to peek to scope out enemy movement. You can also roll to nearby cover or pour blind fire on a general area. Jumping over cover also involves the press of the same button. Aiming and pulling off headshots is as simple as it is in Call of Duty, but with the added sweetness of exploding heads and arterial spray. Also like CoD, there is no constant health bar, you just have to stay hidden for a few seconds to recover from being shot in the face.

This is usually when you get bumrushed by the fiendish enemy intelligence. If you constantly use the same tactics or overextend yourself even the least bit, the Locust will exploit your mistake. On higher difficulty, you stand a good chance of dying just by peeking out to snipe for too long. The amount of enemies and their patterns are always the same, so the difficulty is only increased by having the AI miss even less. If you're playing co-op, with a friend filling Dom's shoes, you can be revived. Tough shit if you're slogging through single-player. Even so, there are no shortage of ways to be swarmed. As these underground dwellers have a habit of bursting out of "emergence holes" at precisely scripted times, the best way to seal these tunnels is with a grenade. The only grenade in the game happens to be the most poorly implemented weapon of all. Throwing one is a tedious chore which involves spinning it on a chain like a sling, consequently opening yourself up to all kinds of hellacious punishment. On the plus side, gibs are extremely realistic looking.

Despite an extremely weak weapons set, there's real satisfaction in shredding apart your foes in a myriad of horrible fashions (in hi-def, no less). The gun used by early Locust minions is a terrible burst-firing SMG. You'll toss this as soon as possible. Meatier Tanks carry pump-action shotguns and can kill you with one melee hit. Conversely, one close-range shot is enough to messily vivisection a Locust torso. Once Marc and Dom make it to the COG chopper, they're given their standard-issue Lancers -- long-range rifles with chainsaw bayonets -- and immediately dropped off in another combat zone. This time you must also deal with having friendly AI that is barely controllable and always idiotic. The first mission you must do as part of a four-man team is also the first to introduce the lumbering Boomers, chunky 8-foot freaks with tiny heads armed with lethally accurate grenade launchers. They have a habit of aurally telegraphing whatever they do so it's no sweat to plug them in the face once they groan "RELOADING" or hide when they go "BOOOOOM!" To complete this sad selection, there is a very poor excuse for a sniper rifle and a satellite laser targetting device known as the Hammer of Dawn. Cool as it is, there are maybe five instances in the game where it can be used, and they're pretty much limited to disposing of extremely dumb Berserkers and Seeders, which are exactly like the ass comet bugs in Starship Troopers.

As the levels become more convoluted and more hazards are thrown at you, the "luxury" of having teammates becomes more and more of a strain. Nothing beats having a real-life friend helping out, but there are times when the game forces you to split up, and in the likely event of either player's death, the level must be restarted. These sequences quickly become frustrating, more so because Gears rubs salt in the wound by having unskippable radio chatter, regardless of whether it's the first time playing through or the 50th. "C'Mon, we're running out of time! We've gotta split up and find that pumping station!" Eventually I muted all character speech and turned off the subtitles, but there are still these weird, awkward pauses in gameplay where all that "brilliant" dialogue should be. Every interaction with AI buddies Cole and Baird grates on the nerves if not the soul itself. The AI has a tendency to draw fire by constantly charging into the heat of battle, failing to provide covering fire, or looking the opposite way while a wave of enemies is charging into the room. What's more, friendly fire is disabled, probably because they're just so adept at getting hit with explosive arrows and getting mauled by Wretches.

Oh, yes, the common Wretch. Easily the most ubiquitous creature in the game, aside from the shadow-dwelling Kryll. They're kind of like zombified dogs with sticky feet, and very high upper registers despite being tone-deaf. A good idea for something in a survival horror game, but a horrible one for a tactical military shooter. What's more, swarms of them are thrown in arbitrarily during most every level. They move fast and rip your head off once they get close enough. Killing them is simple but unrewarding, and like roaches you know there are probably 20 more hiding somewhere close. Once Gears tires of the garden-variety Wretches, Epic reaches into their bottomless bag of tricks and comes up with ... exploding Wretches. It's the exact same model only with a simple palette swap, and now they, well, explode. Brilliant.

Now, imagine being locked in combat with Theron Guards, with their lethal Torque Bows, while Tanks try to rush and cave in your juicy, unprotected skull, and to top it off, these dumb-ass exploding Wretches are falling from the sky. By this point, the gameplay has become so frantic that you must alternately crouch-run, roll to avoid explosions, and snipe from behind cover repeatedly. Remember, they're all controlled by the same button so in each case it's context-sensitive, meaning the game decides whether you should roll to avoid a melee attack or stick to the wall next to you. Close-quarters combat is incredibly hairy, and God forbid you get flanked or snuck up on because the camera just isn't adequate in certain conditions. The giant gout of blood shooting out when you get a chainsaw kill is pretty neat, but it's less so when you're the one being chainsawed. A lot of bullshit deaths have resulted from this oversimplified cover/evasion system.

The death and destruction is expertly handled, of course. This is none more apparent than during the handful of instances in which you must first take out and then man a gun turret (they're called "troikas" just because it sounds cooler). You get a genuine feeling for the weight and recoil of these obscenely powerful machine guns. As you chew through waves of relentless Kamikaze-like Locust, their bodies literally vaporize; limbs and heads are flung across the battlefield amidst prodigal torrents of gore. Later when you take on a squadron of airborne Sentinel-like Reavers manned by entire crews of Locust from the back of a moving train, and the sun is setting in the background, the scene is ass-kickingly epic, surreal and beautiful at the same instant. These moments are when Gears is worthy of all the praise lavished upon it. Too bad the arbitrary last boss practically has a flashing neon sign pointing to his weak point, and worse, you don't even know who the hell he is. The end of the campaign is abrupt, and of course the heavily cliched story ends Aliens-style with an atomic explosion, and a triumphant flourish courtesy of the overbearing musical score.

Multiplayer Gears of War is a real test of my patience. There are four modes: Warzone, Assassination, Execution, and Annex. They're basically all the same team deathmatch with slight variations. However, like Counter-Strike, the best way to win is simply to exterminate the opposition. Consequently every level, regardless of map or game mode, turns into a game of "rush for the sniper rifle". Whoever has a ranged weapon has the advantage, no exceptions. Even though you're either on the COG or Locust side, allegedly on a team, there's hardly any teamwork to be seen. It seemed I was the only player on the West Coast server who was interested in reviving teammates instead of mindlessly rushing and curb-stomping the enemy every single round. Learning the maps involves getting chainsawed an awful lot, I found out. The assclowns who routinely did it could never seem to shut up about their awesome B-holding skills. On one map, the three uber-dorks on the COG side could not stop quoting Bubb Rubb ("It's got dat woo-WOO"). On another map, this one peckerwood would always say "that's how it's done, boys!" in his West Virginian twang whenever he killed anyone. Trash talking to strangers never had much appeal for me, much less having moronic trash talking be a mandatory part of the game experience. Fortunately I left my Microsoft USB headset in the trunk of my car, where it was systematically destroyed by creeping mold. Even if I wanted to talk back, it's out of the question for me.

I would go through the somewhat laborious process of finding screen names of offending users and Muting them before realizing that finding another game was much faster and easier, plus you don't have to play with said offending party. Oh, but it is satisfying on a purely visceral level to reduce them to ground beef with the grenade launcher. The sniper rifle, once you get used to the one round in the chamber (what is this, the Civil War?), it's ace for head shots. Don't get me started on the pure evil the Torque Bow is capable of. But arterial spray gets old too, and soon I realized I was hooked on looking at pretty carnage. Now the idea of entering a tournament or trying to make the leaderboards is pretty unappealing. Multiplayer is only rewarding on a round-to-round basis much like Counter-Strike and not really worth it in the long run for the Gold membership fee. Sorry, Microsoft. You can stop emailing me trial offers whenever you like.

If the gameplay itself weren't so shallow, perhaps Gears of War would have a longer shelf life. If there was actual strategy involved in multiplayer, I would probably still be playing it now and shirking this review for much, much later. Three months ago, I was so deeply in love with this game that I could not see beyond its slick surface. The things that irritate me so much now, I was somehow able to ignore because it's just so fun getting to know every facet of a game. Once I saw everything Gears had to offer, and realized just how little it was rewarding me for all the effort I put into mastering the damn thing, I knew it could not last.

The relationship is now officially kaput.

johnny_cairo's avatar
Featured community review by johnny_cairo (June 03, 2007)

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